An economic experiment reveals that humans prefer pool punishment to maintain the commons

Arne Traulsen, Torsten Röhl, Manfred Milinski


Punishment can stabilize costly cooperation and ensure the success of a common project that is threatened by free-riders. Punishment mechanisms can be classified into pool punishment, where the punishment act is carried out by a paid third party, (e.g. a police system or a sheriff), and peer punishment, where the punishment act is carried out by peers. Which punishment mechanism is preferred when both are concurrently available within a society? In an economic experiment, we show that the majority of subjects choose pool punishment, despite being costly even in the absence of defectors, when second-order free-riders, cooperators that do not punish, are also punished. Pool punishers are mutually enforcing their support for the punishment organization, stably trapping each other. Our experimental results show how organized punishment could have displaced individual punishment in human societies.

  • Received April 24, 2012.
  • Accepted June 14, 2012.
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